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Behind the scenes at commencement

2016 University of Minnesota Duluth commencement. (Photo by Brett Groehler, UMD)

University of Minnesota Duluth's commencement is held at the Amsoil Arena in two separate ceremonies, one in the morning (College of Education and Human Service Professions; College of Liberal Arts; School of Fine Arts) and one in the afternoon (Labovitz School of Business and Economics; College of Science and Engineering). As UMD has grown, so has the number of students graduating.

Several years ago the decision was made to hold the two ceremonies because of the large crowds and parking issues. It has been wonderful that the graduates can now invite more of the family and friends with whom they want to share their graduation day.

Although I have attended UMD commencement many times, at this year's ceremonies on May 7, I had a new job. Instead of marching in with the faculty, I would be one of several commencement marshals at the morning ceremony. Instead of my black academic cap and gown, I would wear a dark-red velvet gown and matching four-cornered velvet hat with my maroon, gold and sky-blue academic hood.

Two of us on the Amsoil floor, Dr. Liz Wright and I, were mirrors, each responsible for half of the arena. Our task was to count and direct the graduates into their seats as they entered in procession, and later on to direct them as they approached the ramp onto the stage, where they would be recognized and receive their diplomas. It was quite an honor to be asked to do this and to be so close to the students on such an important day.

Although we rehearsed before the ceremony and had little maps with arrows showing us where everyone was supposed to go, I was a little nervous. Would I be the first marshal in UMD history to accidentally lead the students down the wrong aisle? Then I'd have to bring them around the floor and back to the stage. Would the proud relatives of the graduates appreciate the added parade, thinking it was a part of the pageantry? And would Liz, for the sake of symmetry and loyalty to a fellow marshal, follow my cue and lead her half of the graduates in a parallel pattern?

Thank goodness everything worked well. Credit goes to Christiana Kapsner, new this year as commencement chair, and the many people who planned for months to make commencement smooth and memorable. It was a lot of work (much of it on a volunteer basis) and tremendously rewarding as well as a lot of fun.

"You must hear a lot of things here," laughingly whispered a young woman in line to go up the ramp. She was wearing sparkly gold, very high heels and was wiggling her feet to get a good grip before the precarious trip up the ramp and back.

She guessed right. Some of the things I heard:

"Do you think it will be harder to walk back down the ramp than up in these heels?"

"Is my hat on straight?"

"Here we go!"

"I see my mom! I wonder if she can see me."

"Can you believe we're really here!"

Each of them glanced at me, the marshal in the dark red velvet robe and hat. Some said hello ("Professor Grover, you look nice!") but all were looking up and forward, towards the stage and the top of the ramp and to the future.

"Oh, I do!" I whispered back. "Congratulations to you."

And she was on her way.

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Email her at